Wednesday, October 16, 2013

License and liability

Here's a great example of why mainstream commercial and nonprofit citizen journalism complement each other so well:  Galveston County Daily News published information that no blogger would ever be able to touch directly for fear of litigational repercussions. 
The source article is behind the paywall, but a PDF of its supporting graphic may be directly accessible to non-paying users through this link.  This is a small screengrabbed excerpt that encapsulates the bottom line. 
My first response to seeing this was "Oh... my... GAWD."  Not because of the wild increases in flood premiums which we all knew were coming, but because GCDN was able to make that statement in the first place, given that it could now be argued that they just put the kybosh on any further potential to sell the piece of real estate that they cite.

You might debate that statement by responding, "But the deleterious condition of disproportionate flood insurance burden existed prior to GCDN's reporting of same, was not caused by GCDN, and would persist irrespective of their news coverage, so why does it matter?" 

I'm not a legal expert, but according to what I've been told by others who have been involved with this sort of stuff, it potentially matters because GCDN caused a negative condition to become public which otherwise might have been contained to the far more private level of the individual sale transaction.  And in so doing, a litigator could potentially argue that they disproportionately impacted the market value of that piece of real estate relative to comparable properties.  It's as if GCDN pointed a finger and yelled, "It's the Amityville Horror house!!" only by virtue of an insurability predicament rather than purported evil spirits.

Again, I'm not an attorney or a legal expert of any kind, but I do know that commercial news media works within a framework of "freedom of the press"-style protections and insulation that the rest of us don't necessarily enjoy.  Hence they can do that kind of thing and remain unscathed where another source might find themselves being sued if they tried something similar. 

However, it's interesting to note that "freedom" also works both ways.  While commercial news sources may not be as vulnerable to litigation as the rest of us, they are very sensitive to the tastes of both their subscribership and their advertisership, and thus may voluntarily edit their content to maximize their appeal to both.  I keep in touch with a variety of journalists locally and nationally, and there have been times when, in discussing current events, I've been told, "We can't publish [that topic] because we simply cannot 'go there'.  But if you publish it, we would then be at liberty to publicize the fact that you produced commentary on [that topic]." 

Moral of the story:  As Joel Salatin strongly advises, read eclectically.  Don't confine yourself to any given commercial or nonprofit echo chamber.  You'll get the best cross-sectional exposure to both facts and ideas by being diverse in your sources. 

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